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The UK football team has no shortage of candidates for carries at the tailback position this fall, and the season may start without head coach Joker Phillips picking a featured back to take most of those carries.
“It’s definitely by committee,” Phillips said of the way his offense will use the position this season. “They’re all good enough to play. All of them are good enough to win with also.”
Three different UK tailbacks — senior CoShik Williams, junior Raymond Sanders and sophomore Josh Clemons — have started at least one game in their careers. A fourth tailback — junior Jonathan George — has appeared in 22 games in his career and totaled 51 carries in 2011.
The quartet is joined in the competition by a pair of promising freshmen in Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor, who have already received rave reviews from the coaching staff.
“Both (freshmen) are big, physical guys who can move the pile,” Phillips said. “When was the last time you’ve seen us move the pile? It’s been a long time. Those guys can move the pile. That’s why I said we’ve got a competition.”
Sanders emerged as a playmaker as a freshman in 2010 with 68 caries for 254 yards and began the 2011 season as the starter. Knee and ankle injuries derailed his sophomore season though, forcing him to miss six games.
“Last year was a really tough year,” Sanders said. “That was really the year that I was struggling because I had my first surgery, then I had my second surgery. This year, I was in the weight room and I got stronger. I got to like five percent body fat, so I feel like now I can take that pounding, make those cuts without tearing my knee or something like that.”
The first player to step up in Sanders’ absence was Clemons, who rushed for 126 yards and one touchdown in his second collegiate game. Clemons appeared in six games, including three starts, before he too went down with an injury against South Carolina. A torn meniscus ended Clemons’ season and also prevented him from participating in contact drills during the spring.
This fall, Clemons is practicing every other day in an effort to be fully healthy in time for the the season opener against Louisville.
“Last year was actually kind of a learning process for me with how to take injuries, because injuries come in college football, and just how to support my teammates when they’re on the field doing the same thing that I’ve been doing,” Clemons said. “We’re all a team, and we work together.”
With Clemons and Sanders down, UK turned to Williams and George for the bulk of the carries.
Williams, a former walk-on, started the final five games of the season and ended the year as UK’s leading rusher with 118 carries for 486 yards. He posted 100-yard-rushing games in wins against Jacksonville State and Mississippi and totaled 68 yards and one touchdown in the season-ending upset win against Tennessee.
George, who also plays on UK’s special teams units, was the only Wildcat tailback to appear in every game in 2011. His best game of the season came with 10 carries for 66 yards and one touchdown against Jacksonville State.
“We’ve won some games with all four of those guys at tailback for us,” Phillips said. “They’re all good enough to play, and we’re happy to play them.”
Even without adding the two freshmen to the mix, UK should have a deep tailback rotation this season.
“Everyone realizes you’ve got to know what you’ve got to do because you never know when one of them will go down,” Sanders said. “Like last season when me and Josh went down, CoShik and Jonathan stepped up and contributed. You just have to be ready and just make sure you’re doing what you’re supposed to do to get the best you’ve got to give on the field.”
Since Williams ended 2011 as the starter, he is getting the first carries among the backs in camp, but Phillips lists Williams, Sanders and Clemons all as first team on the post-spring depth chart. On Wednesday, Phillips said the returners, minus Clemons due to his part-time practice schedule, are splitting reps with the first team, while the freshmen are splitting reps with the second and third teams.
“I can get those (freshmen) a little bit more reps than the other three guys that have been here three and four years and therefore should know what to do,” Phillips said. “We know what they can do. We’ve got to make sure these young guys know what they’re doing on Saturday (in the first scrimmage) so they can compete.”
Mobley and Taylor both knew of the depth at the position when they signed with UK, but on Media Day they both said hoped to earn playing time this season.
“I want to get in, learn — learn from the (veterans) actually — and just do what I have to do,” Taylor said.
“I just really want to get in here and learn the system,” Mobley said. “Hopefully I can get some reps on Saturdays.”
Unlike most position battles in fall camp, the UK tailback rotation may not be much clearer when the season starts than at the beginning of August.
That’s OK for UK coaches and players, who know most of the backs will be needed at some point this season.
“That will help the team out tremendously,” Clemons said of the depth. “Everybody is out at practice pushing each other to get better. As we push each other to get better, the team gets better as a whole.”
During UK fall football camp, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be looking ahead to the 2012 season with a position-by-position preview. Previous stories in the series include the quarterback preview and defensive line preview.